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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3469

Dr STONE (5:14 PM) —There are some 800,000 families who make use of professional child care in Australia. We need to stress that the old idea that child care was an optional extra for mum so that she could play tennis for the day—or that it was a luxury—is an absolute nonsense in the 21st century, when so many know that, unless they can have that professional, affordable and accessible child care, they simply cannot earn the second income that is going to make the purchase of a house, paying down their mortgage or paying their bills possible.

When child care in Australia gets beyond the means of the average family to pay, we have a serious problem. No longer does the mother-in-law or the mother of the woman who is working live just next door. It is not a case of reaching into the community and saying, ‘You mind my kids while I go to work.’ That probably never did happen, but it certainly does not happen now. So we have this extraordinary situation where this government is choosing to save $86.3 million by stripping—out of the pockets of working families—a childcare subsidy which makes it possible for that second income to be earned. When I went around Australia consulting specifically on Labor’s plan to remove the indexing of the childcare rebate, to remove some $300 a year out of the subsidy that those parents rely on, I said to parents in childcare centres, ‘How are you going to manage with this; is it going to be a problem?’ The then minister of the day, Minister Ellis, had said, ‘This will only affect a few rich families; less than one per cent’—and we, of course, know Labor does not like rich families—‘so it is not a problem.’

When I went around Australia, I found that it was your average earning family, your single parent family, saying, ‘We are already doing our calculations. If our fees are to go up $5 or $10 a day, if any change in the amount of fee we are to pay occurs, we are going to have to re-evaluate if it is a sensible, rational decision to go out to work each day and earn a salary because the net return to us per week is just too little.’ If you, as this government is doing, imagine that the costs of a new National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care is not an enormous impost on the sector, then you really are not tuning in to what is happening across Australia.

We have childcare advocates and childcare associations—both the for-profit and not-for-profit sector—saying, ‘Of course, we believe in standards of quality for child care and early childhood education.’ So does the coalition, let me stress, despite the misinformation given in the second reading speech. We believe in quality child care and early childhood education. But this government managed a COAG agreement which took no notice of the fact that, if you require a much smaller ratio of teachers to children in care, if you demand much higher qualifications of staff involved, if you put a limit on the size of those in care to gain a certain category of registration, you put the prices up exponentially. This is already occurring right across the sector due to the costs of utilities going up—energy—whether it is gas or electricity. The costs of wages are to go up shortly. So you have incredible increases in costs in child care at the same time as you have this government removing part of the subsidy that was making it possible for the second income to come into the household to pay the mortgage, the rent and for the car. What an extraordinary calculation.

The government put in the demand that a new framework be implemented without doing the proper costing. Why would we be surprised because this government fails to do proper costing on most major projects. Before us we have the National Broadband Network which was not costed. We did not have a proper costing of the insulation installation debacle. We did not have the Building the Education Revolution costings. So I guess not costing the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care cannot be a surprise to us. But the problem is that, at the same time, they have chosen to remove $86.3 million out of the subsidies for families who desperately need to work to make ends meet. Then we move on to say that the indexing of that subsidy is to be removed for four years. This is now a long haul for families looking carefully at their salaries and wondering how they are going to pay their mortgage if the childcare fees are $100 or so a day—as they are quite commonly right across the system—and still make ends meet.

The previous speaker ranged over the area of early childhood education. These days there is a blurring of the distinction between child care and early childhood education, most specifically in the area of four-year-olds. There is a hybrid model where some children remain in professional child care in accredited places and receive a curriculum that has been designed to prepare them for their following year in formal education, the primary school system.

I want to know—and a lot of other people out there in the community want to know—what on earth does Labor mean by guaranteeing universal access to early childhood education in the year preceding their primary education for 15 hours a week with qualified teachers? That is the statement. Does ‘guaranteed access’ mean that I am going to get a preschool built in Whroo or Bearii or in Waiaa or Girgarre in my electorate where I have preschool aged children who have no access within 40 or 50 kilometres to another early childhood education centre? The Koondrook centre closed, sadly, because the parents could not afford the fees. They are recovering from seven years of drought. They could not afford the $100 to $150 a term, given that a number of the mothers are also trying to work, they could not afford the volunteering time—commonly called the ‘milk and fruit time’—and they simply had to back away from that early childhood education centre. So its very existence was under threat.

Is the Labor government going to ride into Koondrook and say, ‘Oops, we guaranteed universal access. We are now going to underwrite the losses in the Koondrook not-for-profit community childcare centre?’ Are we going to be serious about how it continues into the future? I do not think so. Indigenous outstations in outback Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia only have a handful of very small children—four-year-olds, for example. Is this federal government going to make sure that they have universal access to early childhood education? I do not think so.

So what does this statement actually mean? I suggest it means nothing in reality. It is a feel-good thought bubble out there. If this Labor government had been serious, they would have said that they had mandated a year of early childhood education for every child. It would typically be for a four-year-old for the year before they entered their primary schooling and it would be for at least a minimum of 10 hours a week with qualified teachers in registered centres and that access would be free, universal and compulsory. Is this government going to consider that sort of mandating? I do not think so. So let us get away from the nonsense being spoken by the other side that they are the champions of early childhood education in Australia—and, yes, we are way behind other developed countries in our preparation of children for their primary schooling—and let us also get away from the nonsense that this government has been amazing in its offering of professional, affordable and accessible child care.

It was this government who abolished the start-up grants for family day carers. Family day carers were typically women, mothers, offering professional child care in their own home. It is the most affordable and often the most accessible child care for a lot of women, particularly those in country towns where they do not have enough kids for a childcare centre to be established. What did this government do? They abolished the start-up grants of over $1,000 for family day carers.

This government also turned its back on the funding of part-time long day care centres, particularly those in remote places like the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. Women came to me in despair and said, ‘We need to work in our communities’—as nurses, as teachers or as administrators—‘and we don’t have any other options for child care in our small communities. We only need three or four days a week.’ But Minister Ellis of this government declared that she did not want to fund part-time long day care centres or family day care centres because she thought they might be in danger of falling over after becoming financially unviable. What she did, of course, was guarantee that those centres could not employ anybody without more than a six-month guarantee of government support. In fact, she rang the death knell for these small centres. I am very pleased to say that a lot of pressure from the coalition made her think a little harder about that, but that was the upfront government statement about early childhood education in part-time circumstances.

We had the shocking situation in Australia whereby this government decided that the Active After-school Communities program supported through the Australian Institute of Sport, a program started under the John Howard government and launched originally in Launceston, was to cease being funded. At the same time we had an obesity epidemic in Australia. This after-school care involved young people experiencing different sports, sometimes in teams and sometimes individually, and also being provided nutritious snack foods. It was universally applauded as a great place for kids to have good care after school while at the same time it was very beneficial for their physical and emotional development. What did this government do? Until enormous pressure was put on it by the coalition, it said, ‘No, we’re not going to fund it beyond the end of this year.’ As that particular program depended on regional coordinators, a number of them had already moved on by the time this government finally said, ‘Oops, we might have got that wrong too.’ So we had the Labor government once again saying it did not really understand what was happening out in the after-school and holiday program providers sector. It did not understand that you do need coordinators of those sorts of activities as you just cannot depend only on volunteers.

Whenever the childcare sector puts its head up and says, ‘Please, give us a break and understand the costs of providing professional child care in Australia and stop stripping away the subsidies and support for families,’ I am very disappointed to say that what they get, as we had in the second reading speech, is reference to how unhygienic and dangerous childcare centres are. So we have this very serious situation where the childcare sector are being bullied into going quietly rather than complaining that they are being forced to put up their fees or contract the size of their service in order to comply with the conditions that are now being placed on them.

In Queensland alone, as you will probably recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, hundreds of childcare places have already been identified to be lost to the sector on the basis that, in order to comply with the new national quality standards, they are forced to have smaller sized facilities. I do not know what those parents are going to do when they do not have any places. That is particularly so for the very young people, the babies, whose places are most in demand. It is very often the case that, because of the very much higher costs of servicing the needs of babies in care, they are the places that are let go. So as someone who regularly has mothers and families coming to me saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ I am very concerned. I am talking about communities in Nagambie and Mansfield, communities in rural and regional Australia, where the need to have a second income is more desperate than it ever has been. Those communities are saying, ‘What can we do to convince this government that we have to have the childcare rebate indexed and we need to have restored the hundreds of dollars that are now stripped away when the annual cap is reduced back down to $7,500?’

The government also gets very excited about the fact that it is now going to have the childcare rebate paid fortnightly rather than quarterly, as was the case before. I would have hoped that the Labor government would have looked at our coalition policy which said that it is an even better idea to pay it weekly directly to the facility, so there is no cash flow problem, it is administratively much more simple and it cuts out the red tape. I really commend that coalition policy to the Labor government. That would be one small move towards a far fairer and more affordable situation for 800,000 Australian families. (Time expired)